Brunei: Royal Empire State of Mind

In the last part of this travel series, Malcolm ventured into the finer side of life with a night stay the grandest hotel in Brunei, his two cents worth on the service by Royal Brunei Airlines as well as his experience as “Prince Charming” when he rode a horse through the woods.  DSC02601 If you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned about my flight experience with Royal Brunei Airlines, well, I’m saving the best for the last. The royal treatment from Royal Brunei Airlines began before our departure flight. Upon reaching Changi Airport Terminal 2, we were welcome by Royal Brunei Airlines’ Country Manager for Singapore, Ms G.Wen Lim who gladly ushered us to the Premier Check-In Lounge for our check-in. IMG_1615 The Premiere Lounge is usually reserved for those flying First or Business Class but we had the privilege to experience the express check-in service. This new lounge offers premium passengers of participating airlines the exclusivity of checking in at a private lounge with direct access to the immigration area. Passengers also get to enjoy the lounge’s luxurious facilities, including lounge seating, light refreshments, television and a variety of newspapers and periodicals. IMG_1618 We’re given specially assigned seats and I was seated on the front row and there were a lot of leg room for my long legs to stretch during the 2-hour flight to Brunei. Religion (in particular, Islam) is an integrated part of Brunei’s culture and before taking off, there is an in-flight blessing. I was actually looking forward to it as it’s an cultural experience to me. IMG_9346 IMG_9349 Royal Brunei Airlines offer a wide selection of special in-flight meals to cater for different needs. I pre-selected the Low Calorie Meal while Tiffany had the High Fibre Meal. On the return flight, I chose to go with the regular selection. One travel tip to share, always order a special meal, in that way, you always get the food serve to you first. IMG_1635 Low Calorie Meal (above) – with grilled salmon, salad and fresh fruits  IMG_1636 High Fibre Meal (above) – With chicken breast, seasonal vegetables and fruits  IMG_9543 Normal In-flight Meal – Beef (above) with cake and coleslaw  IMG_9544 Normal In-flight Meal – Chicken (above) with cake and coleslaw  Upon our arrival at Brunei International Airport, we were welcome by Royal Brunei Airlines Communication Officer, Muaz Al Rashid and our tour guide, Tom Chong from Sunshine Borneo Tours. Tom has been a wonderful guide, very knowledge in terms of his country’s history and culture and very professional. He was always the first time to arrive and had to wait for us to get ready. IMG_9377 IMG_9326 Fast forward to the last evening of our tour, we arrived at Brunei’s most magnificent hotel – The Empire Hotel & Country Club. This was my love-hate part of the trip. I seriously wish I had arrived in the grandest hotel in Brunei in style, with my suit on and looking hot for a date, but instead I was dressed in wet T-shirt with damp shorts after our snorkeling trip. DSC02409 I tried to behave nonchalant when the hotel staff served us our welcome drink and attempted to soak in the beauty of the sunset as the backdrop of the lobby balcony. Soon after, we were personally escorted to our individual rooms where we’ll get to enjoy for the night. DSC02466 DSC02413 DSC02416 Having worked for The Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore and stayed a few times there, the feeling of stepping into The Empire Hotel’s room was still very impressive. Indeed, it is comparable to a Ritz but with a style of its own. I went under the warm shower to clean off the sea water and still had time to make myself a mocktail consisting of Perrier and mango juice from the mini bar, with compliments from the hotel. DSC02446IMG_9491 IMG_9490 While waiting for our van to pick us up to meet the Bruneian bloggers, we spot a car with the Singapore flag. Upon enquiry, we realised that President of Singapore, Dr Tony Tan was in Brunei for meeting and he was staying in the same room as us. What chance! OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA But too bad I didn’t manage to get a photo with him. But one of my friends who is working in Brunei was invited to a dinner with President Tony Tan the next day. How lucky! DSC02462 DSC02464 After having breakfast like a king, we were all excited about the next part of the itinerary which is the site inspection of the hotel. We were first brought to a deluxe room at the other side of the wing. DSC02471 DSC02472 DSC02473 Of course, all of us were mesmerized when we came to the Empress Suite. The suit itself is bigger than the 4-room flat I live in. And we also had the chance to view an Ambassador Suite, of which our President was hosted in one Ambassador Suites. DSC02480 DSC02482 DSC02484 DSC02503 DSC02505 DSC02508 DSC02599DSC02586 DSC02597 DSC02587 DSC02588 DSC02590 DSC02593 We also had the chance to view one of the resorts and a tour of the sports and health facilities before a good exchange with Brunei Tourism officers over lunch. I gave my personal comments on how Brunei should showcase not just their eco-tourism but also as a multi-destination for golfing and scuba diving. DSC02525 DSC02527 DSC02540 DSC02541 DSC02542 DSC02544 DSC02549 DSC02563 DSC02553 DSC02557 A short break after lunch and we were  on our way for the final activity before departure –  horse riding at Royal Brunei Polo & Riding Club, which is just 5 minutes drive away from The Empire Hotel. It was my first time being on the back of a horse and doing a “gangnam style” through the woods. I felt like a prince being escorted on a horse through the forest in a fairytale. DSC02625 DSC02661 DSC02639 DSC02635 DSC02641 DSC02649 DSC02658 DSC02667 DSC02668 The entire journey has been an eye-opening experience for us, and I feel very honoured to be selected as one of the participants to go to Brunei and to share it’s hidden treasures with my readers and friends. DSC02603 Special thanks to Brunei Tourism and Royal Brunei Airlines for the generous hospitality. For more information: Brunei Tourism – www.bruneitourism.travel Brunei Tourism Logo Royal Brunei Airlines – www.flyroyalbrunei.com (website), www.facebook.com/royalbruneisingapore (Facebook) Weekend & diving SIN edm 600px The Empire Hotel & Country Clubwww.theempirehotel.com Royal Brunei Polo & Riding Club is located at Jerudong BG3122, Negara Brunei Darussalam. Tel: +673 261 0524 Email: rbprc2007@gmail.com IMG_4788 Check out my previous travel posts on Brunei and what my travel companions had to say about this trip: Malcolm Sunny’s blog posts The Charming Night Glow of Brunei Conversations with Mother Nature at Ulu Temburong National Park A Tour of Brunei’s National Treasures Andy Storm’s blog posts Brunei: A Kingdom of unexpected treasure Day 1 Brunei: A Kingdom of unexpected treasure Day 2 Brunei: A Kingdom of unexpected treasure Day 3  Brunei: A Kingdom of unexpected treasure Day 4 Tiffany Yong’s blog posts Flying with Royal Brunei Airlines Ulu Ulu Resort: Digital Detox made FUN Luxury Stay at Empire Hotel & Country Club Renzze’s blog posts Part 1: From Singapore to Brunei Part 2: Brunei Night Experiences Part 3: The Journey into the Pristine Rainforest of Brunei  Part 4: Finding peace in the heart of a rainforest Part 5: Peering above the Rainforest Part 6: Venice of the East – Kampong Ayer Part 7: Under the sea in Brunei Part 8: Meeting with Brunei Bloggers Part 9: The Empire Hotel and Country Club in Brunei Part 10: Horse Riding and a sweet farewell Deenise’s blog posts Discover Brunei: Brunei by Night – Mosque Visits and Night Markets Discover Brunei: Ulu Temburong National Park Discover Brunei: Canopy Treetop Walk, Cultural City Tour and Snorkeling Trip Discover Brunei: The Empire Hotel and Dinner with Bruneian Bloggers Discover Brunei: The Final and Bitter-Sweet Goodbyes  Discover Brunei: Travel with Me And View Brunei Through My Lens “Save time, pay less, travel more – Get cheaper air tickets and hotel rooms with Wego.com“.

Brunei: Charming Night Glow of Bandar Seri Begawan

To many Singaporeans, simply mention Brunei and their instantaneous response would be, “It sounds boring. Is there anything to do there?” In this travel series, Malcolm explored the Abode of Peace and shares the hidden treasures from the last sovereign Malay Sultanate in the world.

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My alarm  woke me up. It was four o’clock in the afternoon. I made a quick trip to the bathroom to freshen up before making my way to the hotel lobby. I had two hours to shop and explore downtown before the agreed time to meet up with our tour guide. It was my first day at Brunei and I was curious to find out more.

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We were hosted in Rizqun International Hotel. Conveniently located  in the central business zone of Bandar Seri Begawan and connected to The Mall – one of the main shopping venues in the capital of Brunei. This four-star hotel welcomes travelers with its elaborated glass art decorations in the lobby. The swimming pool complements the needs of family with young children. Published rate for this hotel goes from B$320.00 but they run promotions from time to time with room rates starting from B$145.00 per night.

If you find the hotel’s wifi service pricy, simply hop over to The Mall to purchase a 3G SIM card. There are many shops selling mobile phones and related services. 3G SIM card are available at B$30, comes with a value of B$5. We also got a top up card of B$10, which last us through our 4 days 3 nights trip in Brunei. Special thanks to our friends at Royal Brunei Airlines who understood the needs of social media addicts like us, who cannot live without updating our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and included the 3G SIM cards in our welcome package.

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Surprisingly, The Mall and the surrounding areas of the town have every brand we have in Singapore. But instead of a spam of cookie cutter outlets in the malls of Singapore, most of the common brands have only a single shop in Brunei, at least that is true for McDonald’s.

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I was able to spot Giordano, Pizza Hut, KFC and even Jollibee in Brunei. And Sushi Tei has recently opened an outlet in Bandar Seri Begawan. I also spotted a number of men in their traditional costumes. In Brunei, it is not uncommon to see men wearing Baju Melayu as an alternative dress code for work. Unlike Singapore, our Malay men normally only wear it during major celebrations like Hari Raya Puasa.

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A chat with my tour guide, Tom from Sunshine Borneo Tours, I found that there is no goods and services tax (GST) in Brunei and Bruneians do not need to pay any income tax. Basically,they get to keep what they earn! Education is free up to university-level. Also medical and petrol are heavily subsidized as well. Bruneians only need to pay a token fee of B$1 per consultation for healthcare and if the medical assistance is not available in the country, they are sent overseas at the government’s expenses.

Another interesting fact is that Brunei practises ‘No Plastic Bags’ days  from Friday to Sunday. I was rather surprised and certainly impressed with this oil-producing country. Our thoughtful tour guide also made it a point to remind us to bring a reusable shopping bag with us.

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We began our Brunei by Night by first filling up our tummies at Portview Seafood Restaurant, a popular spot for locals. It is extremely busy at the end/beginning of the month when people received their paycheck. The restaurant offers an unobscured view of the water village at the opposite site of the bank.

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Dinner that night consists of a sumptuous seafood steamboat. Fresh prawns, fish and crab caught locally were arranged neatly together with fishballs and crab sticks on a bed of cabbage and greens waiting for us to drop them into our choice of tom yum soup or chicken both.

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After dinner, we took a stroll towards the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin (SOAS) Mosque. We froze in awe and paused for photographs as the view of the gigantic honeycomb of gold came into our view. I had seen many mosques in Singapore and Malaysia but seeing the SOAS Mosque glowing at night was a very special experience.

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Do you know that there is an International Quran Reading Competition? The national Quran reading competition in Brunei is held annually at SOAS Mosque and I heard that the winner of the Quran reading competition will be rewarded with a lifetime monthly stipend of B$2,000 courtesy of the government.

Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, or JAME Mosque for short, is the largest mosque in Brunei and is considered one of the grandest monuments in Islamic culture.  It was built to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the sultan’s reign. We managed to make it in time to snap a few postcard worthy photographs before the mosque closed for the night.

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By the request of TIffany, we made a side trip to Fitness Zone Health Club. This gym is opened by Brunei-born Taiwanese celebrity, Wu Zun (formerly) of Fahrenheit. We heard that sometimes overseas fans of this popular singer/actor will travel to Brunei and camp outside the gym in hope of catching a glimpse of their idol. At least, Tiffany didn’t have to sleep outside Fitness Zone that night.

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The final highlight of the evening was the trip to the night market at Gadong shopping area, located 5-10 minutes walk away from Rizqun International Hotel where we were staying. It offers a glimpse into the local cuisine culture and as bloggers, we entertained ourselves that night by making funny poses and engaging in food photography, much to the amusement of the locals.

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We spotted a stall selling B$1.00 Nasi Katok, a dish of hot rice served with a side of spicy sambal, and a piece of chicken or beef or pusu (anchovies). Nasi means rice in the Malay language and Katok means knock. Back in the old days, there was no 24-hour eateries, so the only way for a hungry person to get a midnight fix was to knock on the doors of a food outlet and get the owner out of bed. The sleepy owner will then prepare a simple dish which evolves into the present day Nasi Katok. (Click here to read more about the story of Nasi Katok.)

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After having some snacks from Gadong night market and tea in my hotel room, it was time for us to turn in for the night. I will be sharing about Ulu Ulu Resort and Ulu Temburong National Park tomorrow, so stay tuned.

Thank you Royal Brunei Airlines, Brunei Tourism and Omy.sg for sending me to Brunei. And blogger friends Andy Storm, Deenise Glitz, Karen “Renzze” Ashley and Tiffany Yong for sharing their travel photos.

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For more information about Royal Brunei Airlines and their fares, please visit their website www.royalbruneiair.com or check out their Facebook page www.facebook.com/royalbruneiairlinessingapore

P.S. – There are no public bus or train service in Brunei. You may take a taxi to an attraction but it will be difficult to find a cab back to your hotel. The best way to explore Brunei is to book a tour package.

“Save time, pay less, travel more – Get cheaper air tickets and hotel rooms with Wego.com“.

I’m going to the Emerald of Borneo!

While the majority population were getting gear up to meet Psy, Carly Rae Jepsen, Justin Bieber and other international stars at the first ever Social Stars Concert, I’m excited about flying off to the Emerald of Borneo and close encounters with the proboscis monkeys tomorrow!

During a recent conversation with a friend, he made this observation after his recent trip to Taipei. “Take away Taipei 101 and the city feels like any other,” he commented. Indeed, for me, most big cities look and feel the same, remove the major landmarks and shopping bazaars, and what’s remaining are the skyscrapers overlooking downtown like security officers guarding a red carpet.

This is why I feel that Brunei is so special to me – offering us a chance to be close to Mother Nature and the great outdoor again. In comparison, Brunei is 5,765 kilometres square while Singapore is only 710 kilometers square, and 70% of its land mass is covered by lush rainforest. Besides oil, I believe clean air is also in abundance at the Emerald of Borneo.

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[Photo credit: borneoadventure.com]

Geographically separated from peninsular Asia by the South China Sea, Brunei lies on Borneo – the 3rd largest island in the world. Brunei occupies only 1% of Borneo, sharing the island with Malaysia’s Sarawak and Sabah, and Indonesia’s province of Kalimantan.

Besides sharing the same currency rate as Singapore and occasionally receiving the Brunei dollars while shopping, I know little about this Southeast Asia neighbour of ours. I made a trip to the library but was unable to find any guidebook specifically for Brunei, which encouraged me to discover more about this mysterious country when I arrive there.

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[Photo credit: idreamofdurian.com]

Besides being the home of proboscis monkey, the capital Bandar Seri Begawan is a juxtaposition of water villages with the grand palace, Istana Nurul Iman and majestic mosques as its backdrop. Many of my friend laughed when I show my excitement for Brunei, a country many guys only recognised as the training ground for jungle survival during their military service.

No doubt, a holiday to Brunei is unlike the usual city sightseeing, shopping and eating which we experience in Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok. As a lover of nature, I had been to Mount Kinabalu in Sabah and I am really looking forward to discover what this country of less than half a million population has in store for us.

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[Photo credit: theempirehotel.com]

I have seen the draft itinerary and I am thrilled that we will be staying at different accommodations every night. From the elegant Rizqun International Hotel to the rustic-charmed Ulu-Ulu National Park Resort, and rounding off the trip with a night stay at the majestic Empire Hotel & Country Club, I’m atingle to check out the various facilities of these hotels and resort.

The pre-planned activities include a mixture of culture and outdoor – a night tour of  SOAS mosque and JAME mosque, trekking through Ulu Temburong National Park, a day tour of the water village, relaxing time at Serasa Beach, plus diving, snorkeling and horse riding. With an itinerary is packed with so many stuff to do, we dare to say that a holiday in Brunei is only just about M&M (mosque and museum).

The fun part of this trip is that I will be going with four other bloggers, Andy Storm, Tiffany YongDeenise Glitz and Renzze (click here to read her pre-trip blog post) but I haven’t met any of them before. I’m looking forward to the interesting experiences together.

Special thanks to OMY.SG and Royal Brunei Airlines for sending me there. Royal Brunei Airlines fly to all the major cities in Southeast Asia and East Asia, as well as Dubai, London and Melbourne. They are currently running their 38th anniversary celebration with promotional fares to six destinations. Sales period until 31 May 2013. 

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[Image: flyroyalbrunei.com]

Remember to check out Royal Brunei Airlines’ website for your next holiday, at www.bruneiair.com